Is online counselling second best?
Traditionally, counselling has always taken place face-to-face (f2f), and so it seems the default way that counsellors work.
Through my experience of training and practising as a counsellor in a small city with over four hundred f2f counsellors, I feel immersed in the f2f counselling world and in a community of counsellors in which online counselling is thought of as second best or, worse still, useless. Comments such as those cited by Jones & Stokes are common, with counsellors questioning if technology is safe/reliable and the belief that 'a real relationship cannot be developed solely through text' (Jones & Stokes, 2009, p7).
In challenging the online sceptics I decided in 2017 to experience online counselling at first hand as a client. I am pleased to report that this experience not only helped fade any doubts, but also strengthened my passion for wanting to practise online, and was the catalyst for my decision to complete an advanced course to train to work as a professional online counsellor with the Academy for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
I now strongly agree with Rhodes, 2017, that counselling online is 'not a watered down version of f2f' and, instead, is a 'new expression' of counselling. I also agree with Weitz’ (2013, pXXV) assertion that 'change is a necessary part of evolution' and that online therapy is an opportunity to evolve as a therapist. It is indeed a curious paradox that many counsellors resist change and this new way of working (Weitz, 2013).
I currently work as an out LGBTQ counsellor where the majority of my clients choose to work with me because they want a counsellor who has professional and lived experience of gender and sexual diversity.
I am therefore very aware of the shame that can encompass identities that don’t fit the heteronormative and cisnormative society we live in. This, I feel, can stop some people feeling able to access counselling. For example, a client’s voice may not match society’s expectations of how they present, and fear of judgement can act as an additional barrier to accessing traditional talking therapy.
By offering the opportunity to access therapy via email or instant message, where clients don’t need to speak or be seen, these barriers can therefore be broken down and enable people who might never have felt able to have therapy f2f to be reached.
There is also the advantage of being able to offer counselling to people in all parts of the country, as not all clients have the advantage of living in or near a city where they access to an LGBTQ-identified counsellor and a choice of several LGBTQ counsellors is much easier.
Many people live in less open-minded places or in rural areas where there are not many counsellors available f2f. By offering counselling online I enjoy being able to reach out to these people who would not otherwise have been able to access counselling due to their location.
Metanoia’s research in 2002 found stigma to be the main reason why people look for a counsellor online, rather than seeking traditional 2f2 counselling, as clients are 'too embarrassed to make in-person contact'.
Seventeen years on from this research, mental health stigma is still cited as a big problem in our society hence the existence of Time to Change (2019), which continues to be funded to challenge mental health stigma. Thus, it can be argued that online counselling can reach more people as the stigma of contacting a counsellor online is reduced.
Another benefit of online counselling is recognising that as the years go by, more people communicate online as part of their daily life. Back in 2009 it was stated that 'increasingly, clients decide to engage in online counselling as a first choice' (Jones & Stokes, 2009, p3).
Today, as the population of 'digital natives' (Buckingham, 2013) is growing, with children and young people growing up immersed in technology from birth, this way of communicating is increasingly becoming very familiar. meaning I can reach people choosing to work online as their first choice. This, to me, is important, because if it is seen as second best by the client or counsellor, there is a risk that the counselling may not be as effective as there could be a reluctance to fully trust online counselling to work.
Lastly, I enjoy being able to offer clients a more equal and comfortable space where they don’t have to travel and enter my therapy room, as I am aware that many people can find this 'intimidating and a barrier to being comfortable' (Rhodes, 2017). When both client and counsellor meet in their own spaces, it can be argued that the client has more 'freedom to be themselves' and is therefore more able to feel 'free to speak their deepest, most private hopes, fears, memories, experiences and feelings' (Rhodes, 2017).
Online counselling, as I see it, can create an incredibly equal, safe and comfortable space where successful therapy is sure to thrive. This is the crux of what quality therapy is about, which for me now begs the question: why would counsellors see online as second best?
Buckingham, D. (2013) Making Sense of the 'digital generation': Growing up with the Digital Media. Self and Society 40: 7–15
Jones, G., & Stokes, A. (2009) Online Counselling: A Handbook for Practitioners. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
Metanoia (2002) https://metanoia.org/imhs/history.htm [accessed 29 March 2019]
Rhodes, A. (2017) Musings on Online Therapy: speaking from their world, their space, in ways which they choose https://www.dr-julian.com/single-post/2017/06/22/Musings-on-Online-Therapy-speaking-from-their-world-their-space-in-ways-which-they-choose [accessed 29 March 2019]
Time to Change (2019) https://www.time-to-change.org.uk [accessed 29 March 2019]
Weitz, P. (Ed.). (2014) Psychotherapy 2.0: Where Psychotherapy and Technology Meet. London: Karnac.